50 years World Heritage Convention: what are the prospects for the next 50?

An important milestone for the heritage community, as the Convention for the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage turns 50. But issues of listings that lack diversity, political influences from outside and difficulties with applying pressure to protect its listings marked the Convention’s history. What are the prospects for the upcoming 50 years?

According to UNESCO’s own figures, the list now includes 897 cultural sites, 218 natural sites, while 39 are regarded as mixed (cultural and natural) sites of ‘outstanding universal value’. A huge amount of heritage places, that has been growing steadily since its creation in 1972. From just 12 listed sites in 1978, to 1154 in 2021. Every year almost 20 new inscriptions are added, and national committees are working on adding even more.

Data: Unesco 2021

Lack of diversity

According to George Abungu, an archaeologist for the National Museum in Kenya, this has everything to do with the Eurocentric background of UNESCO. “African countries have to prove the extraordinary value of their sites to humanity through a Western perspective in order to make it onto the list”, he told DW in an interview. On top of that, European countries often have full-time working application committees that are funded by governments.

Number of World Heritage Properties by region. Almost 50% of the inscribed properties are in Europe. Data: UNESCO 2021

Just like the number of tourists visiting a listed world heritage site, the unrestrained growth is causing quite a number of problems. First of all, there is a lack of diversity when it comes to inscriptions. For example, almost half of the 1154 World Heritage sites are in Europe, and fewer than 100 in Africa. And while that criticism has already been voiced for the last 30 years, it’s unlikely Africa will catch up to Europe anytime soon.

But many African countries have other concerns: the main reason why African governments haven’t been pushing for the listing of their territories lately is the fear that they won’t be able to run development projects afterwards”, Abungu explained. So first-world countries are better represented in the World Heritage list because of their advantageous position over poorer countries. Not because half of the world’s most important heritage is located in Europe, but because they have more money and time to advocate for it.

Influenced by politics

So it looks the list does not merely select ‘the best’ cultural or natural heritage sites in the world. And while UNESCO often presents itself as a non-political entity, representing ‘universal values’, it is influenced by geopolitics, writes former UNESCO employee Stephen Hill.

Because UNESCO officially is a ‘technical’ agency, it is dependent on its member states for funds. This can have serious consequences when members are not happy with a decision, and threaten to withdraw. For example, after adding Palestine as a full member in 2011, both Israel and the United States blocked their funds. The US’ contribution alone was around $600 million. Eventually, the US left the organisation altogether after the World Heritage Committee designated the old city of Hebron in the West Bank as a Palestinian World Heritage site in 2017.

UNESCO is also organising multiple conferences on the topic of how The Next 50 years of the Convention should look like. Find more information here.

How to apply pressure?

Another important challenge for the World Heritage list for the upcoming 50 years is how to apply pressure when it comes to world heritage that becomes endangered? At the moment of writing the World Heritage Committee deemed 52 of the 1154 listed sites as endangered. This can be for a multitude of reasons. For example being in danger of disappearing or destruction, or changes in its authenticity as a heritage site. The Committee may consider including the site on its List of World Heritage in Danger, this will openly flag the problems.

For instance, in 2009 Unesco urged Belize to take better care of the world’s second-biggest reef by classifying it as ‘endangered’, after the destruction of mangroves and marine ecosystems, offshore oil extraction, and the development of non-sustainable building projects threatened the reef. The move was successful. In 2018 the reef was scrapped them from the ‘endangered’ list. The Committee praised Belize’s “visionary plan to manage the coastline”, saying “the level of conservation we hoped for has been achieved”.

A more extreme tool UNESCO can use to pressure listed sites, is to warn them they risk delisting. Liverpool’s dock area and Dresden’s Elbe valley were scrapped off the list after changes caused a loss of the ‘outstanding universal value as inscribed’, according to UNESCO. However, since this has only happened three times in its 50-year history, it shows that the Committee will only take such drastic measures in extreme cases.

Climate change?

But what about the World Heritage sites that are threatened by the effects of climate change? For example, the Lake Turkana National Parks in Kenya which is plagued by heavy droughts is listed as ‘endangered’. If in the future, the park’s condition worsens because of climate change, does it not deserve a place on the list anymore? Will UNESCO stop advocating for its protection and preservation as a Heritage site? These kinds of questions will come up more often in the future, as more heritage sites are being threatened by the consequences of climate change. It means places and sites of extraordinary value must be protected by a joint effort. Ideally, UNESCO could take the lead on this.

On a mission

The values UNESCO represents are incredibly important for humanity. By continuing to gather, list and advocate UNESCO still remains the most important heritage organisation on the geopolitical level. Whether they can tackle the above-discussed issues, or other problems that will arise in the next 50 years, remains to be seen. The heart of UNESCO’s work remains the mission to build peace through international cooperation in education, science, culture and media freedom, and that is absolutely something the world needs to keep fighting for.

This article was originally published in English. Texts in other languages are AI-translated. To change language: go to the main menu above.